The Schindler Girl

The Schindler Girl

There’s an old saying in the music business. Musicians are arseholes. The first time I heard that, many years ago, it was said by a musician. He was a Dubliner who by then had already spent thirteen years making a living in a Bee Gees tribute act but he based his view on all the bands he had ever been in. The most recent affirmation I came across appeared in a magazine interview with Danny Fields (real name D. Feinberg), former Doors ‘publicist’ and manager of the Ramones.

Mention of the Doors leads on to a qualification at the outset. This is about the young Alma Schindler (1879-1964), with only passing references to her later life. It’s like explaining the reason for being chiefly interested in Jim Morrison and his creativity before he became famous. Why not later? That’s when the bullshit took over.

Die Schindlerin, or the Schindler girl, as the young Alma was often called, was a musician herself but it seems clear from her early diaries (January 1898 – January 1902) that her famous musico-sexual entanglements with Zemlinsky and Mahler were not in her best interests. Treat ’em mean and keep ’em keen, as the chauvinist motto goes. The drama queen Zemlinsky, whom she met in February 1900, was a bad influence on her (and on her diaries, where she eventually becomes a bit of a bore) but at least he did acknowledge that her birth as a girl did her talent no favours in the music world.

Simply put, she had started to think like a groupie. Mahler ‘rescues’ her (and the reader) at the end, if only by virtue of a speedy courtship, but his monstrous demand that she give up composing to be his skivvy demonstrates just how this bad influence evolved in a more fateful direction. I think life with Mahler drove her cracked, as the Irish phrase puts it. After they married, he expected her to open the door for him in silence when he arrived home for lunch and to remain silent for the meal, so that his artistic thoughts would be undisturbed. The joke label of ‘Mahler in the morning’ for the common earnestness of his fans did not appear out of thin air.

Furthermore, in a funny Daily Telegraph review (2004) of Mahler’s Letters to his Wife, Tom Payne observed

“When he failed to buy her a birthday present, he wrote: “What more can one give, when one has already given oneself?” Considering the sacrifices she’d made for him, you’d think a nice hat would have been a start.”

She had sold her soul to Mahler but, given her time and place, there really wasn’t much else a clever and good-looking bourgeois girl with a piano but without a husband could do. Ironically, as the 1898-1902 period in her own words reveals, music was not even where her true artistic talent lay. She was really a writer.

It is vital to note that there are two versions of these diaries:

(a) the German original, deciphered by Susanne Rode-Breymann in collaboration with Antony Beaumont;
(b) the shorter and very different English translation, for which Beaumont alone is responsible.

Though the English one too is packed with incident and observation (and too much material of interest only to musicologists), the introduction is enough to earn the recommendation that the volume should be consumed with caution. For example, it is there that the translator, sneering at Alma’s poor grasp of musical notation, comments that her first teacher – the blind Josef Labor – could only judge her compositions by what he heard. The subject is music, after all, and a complete inability to read and write it made no difference to Lennon or McCartney or the opinion of their admirers.

Furthermore, the translation is prone to the occasional howler. To give just two examples, he makes ‘physical’ out of psychisch (a passage where Alma contrasts the attractions of two men becomes unintelligible as a result) and – even worse, in the Austrian context – renders Schmäh as ‘smear’. In his history of Austrian humour, Georg Markus links Wiener Schmäh to Vienna’s ethnic mix and defines the particular sense of humour as a mixture of melancholy, sarcasm and a little malice.

By my own count there are also fifty-four important textual omissions in the English version, including several sympathetic remarks about Jews that don’t fit the picture of an antisemitic monster that is often hawked around, even now. The final important omission is her vivid account of a day in late August 1901 that she spent on a mountain hike in the Salzkammergut. Prevented by rain and fog from the final climb up Hainzen (1,638 m or 5,374 ft – I checked) she instead made it to the top of Katrin (1,542 m / 5,059 ft). This demonstrates how vigorous and tough she was (and Beaumont does include the day she extracted one of her own teeth) but it also prefigures how at sixty years of age (in 1940) she was able to lead her second Jewish husband (Franz Werfel) and a motley crew of refugees over the Pyrenees, away from the Nazis.

Alma did admire Hitler on meeting him before the war but she always liked a drink and was wearing champagne goggles at the time. As Rode-Breymann has recently (2015) observed, Sie hätte sich von Werfel trennen können und wie ihr Stiefvater, ihre Halbschwester und deren Mann in die Nationalsozialistische Partei eintreten können (‘She could have separated from Werfel and, like her stepfather, her half-sister and half-sister’s husband, joined the Nazi Party’). Instead, she walked the walk.

So, what kind of writer was she? My initial feeling on spotting all the gaps recalled Noel Coward’s advice to Little Jimmy Osmond. My dear boy, you have Van Gogh’s ear for music. Even more than having such an ear (e.g. for Wiener Schmäh), though, the translator sometimes seems blind to the sheer colour in Alma’s writing.

Several themes loom larger when one studies the omissions. Some important details of her relationship with the painter Gustav Klimt are left out, as are multiple occasions that detail the hassle and harassment that women – in all times and places – experience, which is a topic of particular public interest at the time of writing.

Beaumont does not do enough justice either to her powers of observation, powers of which she herself was very aware. He includes an early passage on the Kaiser’s fiftieth anniversary celebrations (1898) that eerily matches the tone of Joseph Roth’s Radetzky March but, as that of a woman in imperial Austria, her chronicle of the absurd and the farcical more often reads as a counterpoint to Hašek and The Good Soldier Švejk.

The only sensible way to present the most striking of these omissions is chronologically, the source being a diary after all.

1898

30 April
There is a scathing, sarcastic account of a ball thrown by the Austrian railways minister, Wittek, where, in her words, it rained excellencies, counts and barons. She details the exaggerated bowing of the ladies before old toffs and she resents being introduced like an exhibit in a gallery.

5 August
She is still only eighteen and the family is staying at the Franzensbad spa, in western Bohemia, for a funny little bedroom farce with some hotel neighbours. Alma first describes the arrangement of the rooms. A lady has the one beside her mother; beside the lady is the room with two of the lady’s gentlemen friends; then it’s Alma sharing with her sister Gretl; and beside them again lies another one of the lady’s admirers. In the course of the night the lady compensates the poor outlier with a visit, whereupon Gretl wakes Alma to complain about her shaking the bed. Then the girls realise the noise is coming from next door. Bald konnten wir auch eine hohe Frauenstimme vernehmen – und wir wussten alles (‘Soon we could hear a high female voice – and we understood everything’). She adds that their Mama could not get to sleep for a long time, due to the four hearties (Wackeren) drinking champagne, heavily.

16 October
Alma gets propositioned on a Viennese street. A year later Beaumont includes the entry about her being followed by a young man on another street.

13 December
She presents another farce, this time concerning the antics of a singer called Oberstetter who visited their home. Aunt Xandi cleared away the afternoon tea debris into the girls’ room and O. gallantly opened the door for her. He then noticed the girls’ collection of photographs and went in to have a look at them. Alma had raced downstairs in the meantime, in response to the arrival of two unexpected lady visitors. She brought the two ladies upstairs. Alma looked around the living room but O. was not to be seen. Suddenly, in the doorway to her room, a tall young gentleman appeared. The two lady visitors were astonished.

Die Situation war peinlich. A young man, from their bedroom. When the first shock was over, the guests sat down and Aunt Xandi made some small talk. O. now sat backwards at the organ bench, where he busied himself by taking his ring out of his pocket and putting it on, before searching for some sheet music and then disappearing a second time.

Alma decided to present some of her compositional work but the elder of the two lady visitors felt it was disturbing and said goodbye. As they reached the hallway, the door of the mezzanine opened with a great noise. Herr Oberstetter appeared on the scene once more. From behind him came the thunderous sound of water flushing. The elder lady took a few steps back but with just a few words he bounded down the stairs and fiddled with his winter coat. The two ladies greeted him with a slight tilt of the head and skedaddled.

Then came ‘the most beautiful part – the catastrophe’, as Alma puts it. Mama. She was very agitated that O. was even there, when he knew that she had gone to see his wife, so the fact that he had given that a miss offended her vanity. She came charging in ‘like an angry tiger’ and, when she heard the details, she screeched at O.

What, you came out of the girls’ bedroom!? Was the conversation not good enough for you!?

As he later departed, Oberstetter said, Now, I have to tell you, as you’ve done today, no one has ever received me, and I couldn’t help it.

1899

15 March
Alma describes walking home with her mother and Klimt. Her stepfather Carl Moll and a man named Spitzer walked in front of them, while Gretl alone had hurried ahead, deep in her own thoughts. Near the University a horde of drunken students emerged from a coffeehouse. Three of them descended on Gretl. She turned around and waited for Carl and Spitzer. Two of the three moved away but one remained behind her, with glazed eyes, barely able to stand. Carl came up and told him to get lost. He gave some lip, whereupon Carl gave him a slap. The women grabbed at Carl’s arms, trying to calm him down. They were about to move on when one of the onlooking pack shouted something smart. Wie eine wilde Katze, Carl waded in again and began boxing their ears, one after the other. Fortunately, writes Alma, the lads were so drunk that they did not resist, otherwise Carl would be no more. Klimt stood in front of a bunch and told them off, while Gretl kept screaming in her high-pitched voice, ‘Shame on you! Shame on you!’ Mama screamed for the police and started to cry. In freeing himself to get at them, Carl had pushed her violently in the chest. Alma felt temporarily unwell. Her mother was pregnant.

29 March
Of all the events of an extended tour of Italy, the dramatic trip to the edge of the Vesuvius crater is inexplicably left out. After the last stop of the funicular, there was a very hard, ten-minute climb in high ash. Sometimes they had to stop and stand still because the sulphur was so heavy on the chest. Just before they got there, Vesuvius spat a bit more so that head-sized pieces of pumice flew over them. Once they reached the top, they first marvelled at the size of the crater. Inside, it was so green, like an old copper kettle, constantly emitting yellow vapours that hung like a cloud high in the sky. Soon they heard a thunderous sound in the depths, then saw a flash of fire, with the ejection of glowing bits of lava, then a high column of smoke. Just before they left, there was a bigger eruption, so that glowing lava and a shower of ash flew over their heads. Their guide quickly placed some coins in the lava and Carl lit a cigarette with it. The black landscape, the fire, the steam… Ich war so aufgeregt, das mir die Knie zitterten (‘I was so excited that my knees were shaking’).

5 April
Alma is unimpressed by street thuggery in Amalfi and Sorrento. After a journey to Amalfi that had them swallowing dust for three hours, her party watched boys fighting in front of their hotel. One of them ended up lying on the ground, covered in blood. Immediately the speculative begging came to the fore again. The rest pointed to the injured one and asked for money for him – die edlen Feinde (‘the noble enemies’). In Sorrento the day before, Alma’s group was walking down the main street, Via Duomo, when they heard insane yelling. Up to ten boys were stamping on the stomach and head of a small one. Alma and the others drove them away and gave the child a few coins. He was no longer able to stand up on his own and he looked pitiful. Wir kochten alle vor Wuth (‘We all boiled with rage’).

16 April
Klimt’s rigmarole of an explanation as to why he couldn’t marry her is omitted, yet two weeks later, without this ironic preamble, Beaumont includes his fuming expression of the impossibility of them doing anything except blending completely into each other (i.e. he would have to throw the leg over).

When he finally lets her down, she marks the diary day with a cross. This mark is in both versions. Er hat mich kampflos hingegeben, er hat mich verrathen. ‘He gave me up without a fight; he betrayed me.’ This disappointment had a deep effect on her. It sounds so like Claire Zachanassian in Dürrenmatt’s 1950s play Der Besuch der alten Dame (‘The Visit’) … Ich liebte dich. Du hast mich verraten … that is said as the death sentence during her final meeting with Alfred Ill (‘I loved you. You betrayed me.’)

18 May
Again no justice is done to her powers of observation by the omission of the vignette about a sign at a Gasthaus. It was spotted during an outing to Grafenstein in Lower Austria. The sign politely requested guests not to carve up their food on the tablecloth. For Alma this anguished cry from the poor landlord made her wonder just what he had grown used to from his guests.

8 June
Alma’s fascinating account of her aunt Xandi’s twenty-one years as a mistress is too long to spell out here.

19 June
Beaumont includes details of a road accident in which a young man named Ernst Zierer is showing off on his bicycle and almost ends up under the wheels of a horse-drawn cab. Nonetheless he leaves out the most important part, given the Austrian context.

Ernst took someone else’s bike and went after the coachman. A row ensued. The coachman sarcastically said, You are a daredevil cyclist and I’m a miserable coachman. I had to mind my horses and save my lady thousands. It then turned out Ernst already had the pleasure of knowing the lady, having often bought his cigars from her. Alma explains she had been a tobacconist of very dubious reputation in Bad Ischl. She had gone on to marry a very rich man.

3 August
This is a Schwarzfahren story. In the station in Nuremberg, Alma notices that the return ticket for herself and Gretl has expired. The man of a couple there to see them off quickly gives them a hundred marks to get rid of them. The girls decide to get on, each with what she calls a bad conscience and a resentful heart. On the way the controller comes along and asks for their tickets. When they tell him ‘everything’ he continues grumpily on his way. Then comes the conductor. He fears punishment – for the girls. In Munich a friend is waiting at the station – fortunately for them – because they are intercepted and interrogated by railway officials with red caps. The controller keeps saying, ‘The ladies are having us on’, which Alma finds so very embarrassing. She adds if they had not had their friend there, they would still be in the company office. Oh, es war scheusslich. In the end they have to pay double the ticket price – 72 marks – as a fine.

29 August
The Rhine Maidens episode involves a boat chase on a lake. At the outset Alma prefaces it by saying this would seem far-fetched in a novel. She makes a similar comment after two wedding proposals are received in one week (see Beaumont). Anyway, she and some other ladies were in a rowing boat, whistling some Wagnerian riff at a woman’s house to attract her attention. A young man appeared on the shore instead and whistled back at them.

Tired of heavy oars, they changed to a smaller boat at a boathouse, where the young man quickly rented one in order to follow them onto the water. If they went fast, he went fast. If they turned, he turned the same way. The pursuit reminded Alma of Wagner’s elusive Rhine Maidens. They returned to the boathouse, so he did too. They abandoned the boat and hurried up the road. Then they heard the voice of a young man they knew, calling them back to the water. They turned to their saviour for protection but when the two young men spotted each other there was a cry of joy and big hugs. The girls were astonished. The two chaps were best friends.

24 September
Rosa Kornbluh was a friend who had a weird experience with Klimt on an Italian train, where he terrified her in a tunnel. That much is in Beaumont but here Alma details Rosa stalking her Italian fiancé. He had come to Vienna but hadn’t let her know. She ran into him on Graben and followed him into a church, where she fainted. When she came around, he told her he’d thought she was in Budapest. Alma then describes two occasions watching the pair at the opera. The second time she sees them sitting together in a porch during an intermission. ‘He: sulky and silent. She: like a sleepwalker, excited, with glazed eyes. She must be crazy… He has my sympathy now… He cannot save himself from her, from her love, from her jealousy.’ Er kann sich ja nicht retten vor ihr, vor ihrer Liebe, vor ihrer Eifersucht.

2 October
The girls buy some sausage and pretzel sticks on their way home in the evening and consume them on the quiet streets in an unladylike fashion. The sudden appearance of a couple of people makes Alma hurriedly conceal a piece of sausage in her leather bag. Die ist nun fettig. Eine kleine Berührung, und der Fleck ist da ewig (‘That’s greasy now. A little touch, and the stain is there forever’).

1900

1 January
In the English version, there are three proposals of marriage. In the German, there are five. Beaumont omits the surreal pair. Alma gets up on New Year’s Day to be offered the hand of Onkel Fischel, a quite elderly, sickly and impoverished family friend. She cannot believe her ears and thinks he’ll end up in an asylum. Man müsste lachen, wenns nicht so traurig wäre (‘One would have to laugh, were it not so sad’). The following day, she writes about the experience again. Während er sprach, sah ich immer von den goldenen Zähnen auf die Glätzel, von der auf die knöchernen Hände, von da auf die befleckte Hose… while he spoke, her gaze constantly shifted from the gold teeth to the little bald head, to the bony hands, to the stained trousers.

16 January
Alma’s dinner conversations with two gobshites at the Hotel Victoria are worth retelling. Wärndorfer asks her is she sure she has nothing to regret. Out with it, says Alma. He elaborates on his stalker-like observations at an exhibition (the first man to approach her – no, not him – the second – no, not him either – the third – ah, he’s the one – he knew it aus jedem Muscel ihres Gesichts (‘from every muscle of her face’)). He adds that the beautiful Alma has for once been left picking for scraps, that the shoe is on the other foot. She is disgusted by his creepy introduction of ‘such a delicate subject’ and when he asks what other way was he to take it she tells him to make of it what he will.

On her other side, Hancke, whom she always sees as an ass, begins to sound plaintive. Then he tells her he has considerable capital in Vienna, from various sources, if she gets his drift. She asks him what is he on about. He starts coughing, which gives her a chance to change the subject. He then draws her a picture of his future apartment and says he’ll have a room too many. ‘Get yourself a butler’ is her advice. Then she turns back to Wärndorfer.

26 January
Regretting performing (dancing madly, talking nonsense) at a social gathering, Alma states that at least going out had brought the benefit of someone asking Carl for a painting. She then discusses the tricky financial situation of the family, at a time when Carl is not selling enough pictures. Den Zins für den 1. Februar haben wir noch nicht zusammen. Eine solche Lüge steckt in unsrer Existenz – wir leben weit über die Schnur. They hadn’t got the interest (repayment) together yet for the first of February. ‘Such a lie is planted in our existence – we live far over the line.’

7 March
Alma makes notes about two balls on the same night. The first, chez Baronin Odelga, consists of Jewish civil servants, while the second, at the Lanners, is a mix of Jews and the military. At the first she is given a noble introduction as “Fräulein Alma von Schindler”, which makes her write them off as dopes (Trottelvolk). At the second only the maids were drunk but otherwise it was classy.

31 March
Alma gets a letter from Baronin Odelga, noting that she hasn’t shown her face in the weeks since the ball. Her presence is demanded at another do, which Alma considers an impertinence, but, having made excuses not to dine there, she and Carl attend in order not to piss these people off too much. At the event, an old Jewish lady pesters Alma to sing but Alma says she does not sing. The old lady says that it’s a pity because she wanted her to take part in an operetta. Then she pesters her to dance a minuet with another young woman. Alma turns away from her. Carl stands up and says he must go. Alma is delighted and follows him to the door. Before they can leave the old lady catches up to ask her to come back for dinner on Tuesday but Alma remembers that she is going to Budapest. For three weeks, she hastily adds. In conclusion, she promises herself not to go back to this kind of hassle any time soon.

21 November
She has always detested Herr Krasny and done little to hide it but in response to his feverish marriage proposal she tells him to be quiet and when he starts trembling all over she recommends some cold water (kaltes Wasser – eine kleine Douche). The encounter is deemed unpleasant … ich sinke … this kind of thing gives her a sinking feeling.

That same evening Alma observes the Schadenfreude of the tenor Erik Schmedes in the audience, when another singer has throat trouble. Though Beaumont reluctantly includes the fight at the opera – when it seems Schmedes beat up a rival who made a smart remark about him skipping a high note – he gripes that Alma’s hearsay account doesn’t tally with the part of the score of the opera in question. The German edition states the fight would probably have erupted later in the wings but in general Beaumont leaves out too much of Schmedes. He is the most entertaining musical character. He seems to have had the soul of a clown.

1901

21 January
Alma makes a comment that Zemlinsky being ill would at least give him the chance to give a rest to the ants in his pants.

25 February
Carl is awarded a gong and doesn’t know why. One of his well-wishing visitors is a State official for whom he had previously lobbied. The man had got the job, an achievement which Alma mentions also involved large-scale bribery on his part.

16 April
Alma refers to Zemlinsky as a miserable coward but kisses a card from him. Her mother later asks why she has ink on her mouth. Again, in the German at least, her sense of humour has not quite deserted her.

7 July
Is it English prudery that left out what Alma was doing with her finger in bed on this day? In the introduction, Beaumont primly says he was uneasy about including “the indiscreet account” of the divine Mahler’s fiasco when he first attempted to have sex with her. He still saw fit to omit Alma’s expression of feelings of shame immediately after the line (that he kept) where she wrote she longed for rape (24 July 1901).

In the end these differences in quality between the German original and the English translation made me think of another great diarist, Alan Clark. In the preface to his first volume (1983-91), Clark concluded by listing all the criticisms that he saw could be levelled against his chronicle. He kept his trump card for the last line. But they are real diaries.

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The Irish Pound Note

The Irish Pound Note

November 1989

I was caught by the Tube inspectors at Victoria one Sunday evening on the way back from Croydon. Not for the first time, I gave a false point of embarkation. “Vauxhall,” I offered, adding that there had been no one there to give me a ticket. The senior inspector, the main man in black, then asked if the stairs went up or down at Vauxhall. I tried to be smart.

“There are no stairs at Vauxhall.”
“Wrong,” said the chief.

There were three of them in black. He told me to empty my pockets. Then he took whatever was there. It amounted to about four quid in coins. There were no notes and they duly escorted me from the station.

With more time to think I walked from there to Piccadilly. There was a pub – St. James Tavern – I knew well on Shaftesbury Avenue and it was still a weekend night so I thought I’d surely find a familiar face. The bar was a ring in the middle of a timber floor and I circled it. I checked the gents’ toilet too but there was no one around.

It was still nowhere near closing time as I stood outside the pub again. I was in the middle of the bright lights in a very big city. No panic. My pockets were empty. No one I knew worked in central London so, even if I passed the night, walking around or something, I’d still be stuck there, unless I tried jumping the Tube stiles. Only central stations had those stiles back then.

My pockets were empty. I checked them again. In my old navy blue overcoat, the right inside pocket was torn. It would have been empty at any rate but the lining was intact. Then I put my hand down inside it, remembering. I’d left something there from my last trip home. Something that was of no use to me in London, that wasn’t worth extracting from the lining of an old coat. It was an Irish pound note.

Hmm. I straightened the green sheet and looked at the picture. Just maybe she was less Queen Maeve than Lady Luck. Despite a sign in the window of a nearby bureau de change that indicated the minimum transaction (£2.50), I went up to the Arab behind the glass.

“Can you change this for me?”

He looked at the crumpled note and pointed to the sign in the window. I nodded.

“I know but the Tube inspectors took my money and all I want is sixty pence, just so I can get through the barriers.”

I held up a thumb in the direction of Piccadilly Circus. He said nothing but gave me 60 p for the green Irish púnt, which was worth, on average, almost 87 p in 1989. This meant I could get a minimum fare ticket and get down into the Tube. I met with no further trouble on my long way back to Dagenham. The Tube got quieter and emptier and there was no one at the other end. The note was withdrawn from circulation in June 1990.

Linz, October 2017

Linz, October 2017

19th October, Thursday

At Vienna airport we got to the Salzburg train platform with a few minutes to spare. We got off in Linz after passing the journey over a few beers in the dining car. It couldn’t really have been more pleasant. There’s nothing to see on the way anyway.

Having stopped at the Bosner Eck for the much-touted (by me, not least) Bosner groß, we got to the Mühlviertlerhof with its dark timber charm. Bags dumped in our rooms, we crossed the river, over and back, and went up to the Schloss before entering the Old Dubliner, at the back of a Hauptplatz tunnel.

 

For the sake of variety, at least on the first night, we also had a drink in the Café Aquarium before hunger returned and JP then complained about the length of the walk back down Landstrasse to the Bosner Eck. (I know it’s good but I would have eaten anywhere.)  This time we also had 3-Stecken Bratwürstels (his idea) and thus got our veg from the sauerkraut. If I’d eaten everything, it would have meant I’d had nine sausages that day. (The night before, I’d made us a rasher and sausage sandwich each, for arrival at the airport.) I don’t know if JP managed it. By the time he finished, I’d stepped away from the stand, for air.

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On the way down we’d spotted the big bar called Josef, which was our last stop. Up on the Schloss, JP had said it was a quiet city. It was only Thursday but there were plenty of people in there after midnight.

20th October, Friday

We had a spicy chicken dish for lunch at a Vietnamese place up the street (Wok am Graben) and then went to Café Traxlmayr for coffee and dessert. There a pair of retired ladies chatting over a couple of tall beers attracted the attention of JP.

Fair play to the two old dears, tanning the pints in the middle of the day.

Naturally I could not take a photo of them, no matter how great the temptation.

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We got to Passau at 3.15. The Inn is very scenic near Passau. High wooded banks continue for several miles. The warm sunshine contrasted with the fog in Linz. Having gone down the left bank of the Inn to the peninsula tip where it meets the Danube, we walked back through the Altstadt and had a nice meal at a place called Bi Plano. The goulash was good. It got cold outside at sundown but there were orange blankets on the backs of the chairs. Passau is very like Steyr but it’s a college town.

Back in Linz we first went to Smaragd, which was pleasant at first, in terms of lighting, venerable music and a pretty girl behind the front bar, but eventually other music from somewhere started a cacophony – this gave the impression of no one being in charge – and we returned to the Old Dubliner, where we soon got the same bar stools as the night before.

The same girl from the second night of my last visit to Linz (2015) was behind the counter this time. She looked good, all grown up. Interesting eyes, hard to read. A local Celtic fan with communist leanings told me her name. I took a photo of a young chap buckled at a table where she kindly left a pint of water. JP had earlier observed him sucking on a thick cigar, though the electric fan in the pub did make the smoke a lot more tolerable than it was two years ago.

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Another lad, who looked like an Arab, wanted travel advice about Ireland. He wanted to visit Kilkenny because he liked the ale of that name.

21st October, Saturday

Linz was very damp this morning. On the train to Vienna, a row developed between the couple sitting at the table across from ours. She was on the phone for a long time first, a good-looking girl with faintly Asiatic features. Russian, I guessed, from a few words I could make out, such as mozhnó, droog and rabot. When he wasn’t eating (an apple, a banana, other stuff) or sleeping behind a hanging jacket, he spoke to her in English and his accent was Germanic (i.e. Austrian).

They had a weekend engagement in Vienna, so flowers and a present had to be bought for their hosts, but first he wanted to deposit her at the Albertina while he walked around for a while. Unfortunately for her, it seemed he intended for her to carry three bags around while at the museum. “I’m shocked,” she said, several times. She also observed that he was “the man in this couple”, which had Mr Sensitive asking how she managed when she was on her own. She countered with “But I’m not on my own now” so he offered to carry one bag.

When the train stopped at Wien Hbf he told her there was no need to get off immediately (?) because it wouldn’t move on towards the airport for a few minutes but she really had heard enough by then and left the scene. He reluctantly followed. There’ll be no happy ever after in that relationship. She’d also got in a dig about him always finding the time and opportunity to eat, so it sounded like she was quite familiar with the various ways he would suit himself, if given the chance. Half a chance.

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Passau, October 2017

Passau, October 2017

The Inn is very scenic near Passau. High wooded riverbanks continue for several miles of train track. The warm sunshine in Bavaria contrasted with the fog in Linz. Having gone down the left bank of the Inn to the peninsula tip where it meets the Danube (blink and you’ll miss the Ilz, around the tip), we walked back through the Altstadt and had a nice meal at a place called Bi Plano. It got cold outside at sundown but there were orange blankets on the backs of the chairs. Passau in Bavaria is very like Steyr in Upper Austria but it’s also clearly a college town.

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Belfast, 1987

Belfast, 1987

The spell was a paid placement, though the Brussels money didn’t come until later. I was twenty-two at the time.

16th February, Monday

I took the one o’clock train. Liam seemed less at ease than me but as the day wore on I felt a bit bewildered. I stayed in Jimmy’s house in Twinbrook. He and his wife told me about the hunger strikes early the next morning. Emotional. They described it as the only time everybody stood together.

17th February, Tuesday

Jimmy’s house settled me. It sorted me out. Liam introduced me to Damien and Billy. I stayed in Damien’s place with the two boys. I watched them argue.

19th February, Thursday

We went to Newry to see P. Then I had to get some money so we crossed over the border to Dundalk. On the way back Liam decided to take a side road to avoid a heavy British army presence on the main one. We ran into a Brit checkpoint. They held us for two hours. We went up to the Felons’ Club in Andersonstown later and I stayed with Billy, off the Lisburn Road. I may be there the whole time.

23rd February, Monday

P. was up from Newry, talking about criminals and headbangers in the Provos. We drank with Jimmy in the Hunting Lodge and then we went to an EEC food meeting. I found Billy’s flat on foot.

24th February, Tuesday

The rain made me notice the hole in my shoe. We met up with G. and later we went up to Unity Flats. The nuns made my tea. The Brits were out in force in West. They stopped us twice in Twinbrook.

I finally got my last essay out of the way. I’ve put it in a large brown envelope. The Brits were crawling over West tonight. Liam and I were stopped twice in Twinbrook. He got us out of it by speaking in an English accent. We had just brought G. home. He’s Jewish. He was sacked from Queen’s for trouble-making.

He encouraged a strike among the cleaners.

I’m living with a Protestant called Billy on Wellesley Avenue, off the Lisburn Road. Damien is sound too. The two boys are always talking about their ‘relationship’. I feel comfortable here. Billy works at night in a place for the homeless so I only see him early in the mornings. Damien lives over on Cliftonpark Avenue. It’s supposed to be dangerous over there; front-line.

This is South Belfast. Queen’s is nearby and all students look the same. A joint RUC-British army patrol stopped us near the border last Thursday after Liam had driven over to Dundalk from Newry so I could get money. He decided to take a slip road on the way back but we ran into them. They searched us and went through the car. The police gave a bit of verbal abuse too [“wankers”, “shitheads” etc]. One of the soldiers found a Sinn Féin election leaflet in my bag and read through my diaries and notes. I got very nervous then [but he must not have been very literate]. They held us for well over an hour by the roadside. Darkness fell but eventually they let us go. Liam’s car had been seen in Bessbrook and somewhere else, according to them. Maybe they were just bored. I’m on the computer anyhow.

This city is amazing. P. objects to the criminal elements which he says exist within the Provos but still his bottom-line support is there. So is G’s, even though he wishes they had an overall socialist theory developed. So many people accept the armed struggle. It’s a different ball game here. The outside objections mean very little.

25th February, Wednesday

Liam called up and brought me down to the Front Page. I met his girlfriend. Damien was there too. We were surrounded by yuppies and social workers. Who’d be a social worker? Damien, Billy and I could not get into a disco on Sandy Row.

28th February, Saturday

Down to the Maze with some of the lads. I had to stay in the car park but later managed to get as far as the visitors’ café. They were visiting B. who was caught with D. A. when they were on their way to kill a policeman on the Ormeau Road. He got twelve years [there was fifty per cent remission of sentences at the time]. Now he’s education officer on his block. All the IRA prisoners are being politicised in there. They are big into Lenin at the moment.

I went out on my own, up the road to the Botanic Inn. If I’d wanted what I had to endure, I could have stayed at home.

1st March, Sunday

Billy brought me out to Finaghy to see an old man called Walter. It was raining. I find myself consciously looking around for external clues to a person’s make-up.

2nd March, Monday

I took the bus to Armagh and I met Tommy C. I had not realised who his brothers were. He showed me a logbook kept by Roddy in the months before his death.

I saw several entries where the Brits told him they were going to kill him.

Remember the sun on the way down. When I got back I drank in the Eglantine.

4th March, Wednesday

The Poly [University of Ulster, Jordanstown] is like a subway. The interview with R. L. freaked me out but we finished with a financial plan. He did help me. I need a letter to show a bank. A sob story and then I met Ray [one of Liam’s friends] and we had a few beers, snooker, burgers and chat. He is an extremely decent guy.

5th March, Thursday

Of course Billy insisted on walking in through Sandy Row. He has changed the flat around. I like Billy. They are all protective. Liam and I went down south to Navan, for a conference.

6th March, Friday

We collected my old pal D. in the night time. I met a girl called Bríd, a Montessori teacher, who turned and said, Tu es sympa, tu es mignon. Adorable. Really? D. got on well with the Travellers, especially the lame and wizened Bernie O’Reilly.

11th March, Wednesday

I’m waiting for the train to get moving. I have been out of Belfast since last Thursday night. Two days were spent at a Traveller conference in Navan and the rest have been spent in Maynooth, sorting out my money problems. I have no excuse for not making it back some time yesterday though. I just wanted to get seriously drunk and unwind after the financial hassle of a number of days. We’re moving now. For a while I did not know if I was coming or going. I’m tired. The rocking of the train puts me off writing. My socks are sticking to my feet. Haughey is the new Taoiseach. Garret Fitzgerald has resigned.

I got f*cking lost again in Belfast. I’m freaked out. An old man I asked for directions brought me to a taxi place near the Markets.

13th March, Friday

By the time we left for Derry four bombs had gone off. There was a council committee meeting in the Guildhall. Guys in suits handed out tea. A white terrier kept barking at the police in the Creggan. Explosions and hoaxes continued in Belfast all day. The IRA also killed a guy in Rostrevor, apparently by mistake. The Rag Ball is on in Queen’s. Flour on the streets. The streets are white.

14th March, Saturday

Billy brought me down to the Quayside bar and I met his brothers. There was music upstairs but it turned out we were financially unprepared. Still, we made it to Lavery’s. I met a girl called Louise, from the Short Strand. She fell in love with my accent.

18th March, Wednesday

Twinbrook [G’s] for lunch and photographs for the booklet I’m writing for the NICTP. Then we went to the Glen Road. The caravan was hot and crowded. I get on well with the girls. It started to f*cking snow. Sister Margaret in Unity Flats had photos too. “You don’t support the shootings, do you?” One of their windows had taken a bullet from the Shankill.

19th March, Thursday

“I need shoes, Manny. I got shoes.” [A quote from Runaway Train.] G. had the man in the shoe shop on Castle Street laughing all the time we were in there. We were more or less on a session. The Crown, the Morning Star, the Crown. Behind the words he has a lot to say. A little bespectacled English Jew reminded me of what socialism is all about. He also understands the importance of the ‘asshole factor’ in political movements. Eastern Europe isn’t really socialist. Well, that’s nothing really new. I had accepted too many Stalinist excuses. Sometimes I had even made them up for myself.

In 1969 G. was on a train somewhere in Czechoslovakia, smoking a Cuban cigar, when a goon appeared to tell him to put it out, as the railways minister was in the next compartment and didn’t like it. After attempting to engage the minister in a fraternal socialist debate about the cigar, G. got thrown off the train at the next station.

20th March, Friday

I’m bollocksed this morning after staying up until brightness with Damien. We were down the avenue at four or five in the morning. I was singing rebel songs. He was throwing snowballs. We had to go to the garage to get cigarettes. He told me about a woman in Berlin. The new shoes are a relief, a liberation. When the snow came the condition of the old pair became intolerable.

21st March, Saturday

I go down to Lavery’s and meet Louise again. There’s a party. Up in the flat there’s Patsy, a social worker (she said). Older than me. I just happened to notice you in the pub as well, before the flat. Black hair and a sailor top.

23rd March, Monday

I did not sweat in the caravan this time. There was a meeting about the Glen Road in St. Paul’s GAA club. There was venom but not as much as I expected. I’m used to this. We were drinking in the Glenowen when a newsflash said that a prison officer and two peelers had been killed in Derry. I look up to Jimmy.

25th March, Wednesday

Liam had to go to Dublin for a funeral. I talked to girls on the Glen Road site but I did not distribute many leaflets. Someone’s black eye put me off. I was a bit freaked out but for once my face stayed white. I’m getting cool again. Remember the sun on the Falls. Young women in this city are very nice to me. They are willing to smile and talk. The last one was in Simpson’s supermarket this evening. I’m surprised.

26th March, Thursday

Our booklet was printed. I was tired but I went to the Felons’ Club. Later in Lavery’s I met Patsy again. She remembered everything. Her sister knew everything.

27th March, Friday

The Conference at the Poly. I could get to like being a bureaucrat. I was on the door. The early morning was f*cking bizarre with the ambulance at the flat. Noreen [a lame guest up from the South for the conference] cut her hand.

28th March, Saturday

There is a bunch of middle-class teenage girls beside me on the train. They are something else. The West Brit accents. They must be a hockey team. I had a couple of drinks in the Quayside before I left.

30th March, Monday

The IRA killed a soldier and wounded three others in a bomb attack at Divis Flats. They dropped the devices down.

31st March, Tuesday

People don’t like sitting together on trains or buses. I got into this compartment first and I was watching them pass by in the corridor and outside but now an old guy has come in. It’s raining outside. The walk to Connolly station freshened me up a bit. Liam gave me a few days off after the conference. But I have to come back to the Free State on Thursday. This is a good time to write, before the train gets moving. The train is moving.

I just got back and there is a group of people in the flat and I wish they weren’t. The one thing was that I discovered the proximity of Botanic Station to Wellesley Avenue. Once I had something to eat on the train my mood greatly improved, even though it wasn’t too bad to begin with.

1st April, Wednesday

We had a meeting in the Andytown leisure centre about Travellers being barred. It went well enough but when we asked for Travellers to come with us did you ever feel like you were banging your head against a brick wall? At least we got the barring order lifted.

2nd April, Thursday

Glen Road meeting, twelve o’clock. All the men were down getting their dole. Liam could not go to Scotland because there were dawn RUC raids on Travellers in Belfast and Newry. Greg [a junkie mate of Billy’s] was still zonked in the flat when I got back in the afternoon. He’ll burn the place down.

3rd April, Friday

A Catholic has been killed in Ardoyne. Shot through the door. He was an IRA Volunteer. A UDR soldier is dead too.

I was trying to clarify for myself the summary reason why the British government remains in Ireland. I think it is a case of the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know. It relates closely to the idea of an acceptable level of violence. Diane Perrons once wrote in an issue of Antipode about the break-up of Britain as a whole. That’s an intriguing idea.

6th April, Monday

The first train. It’s a new morning. Belfast city centre was sealed off. Soldiers and police were crawling all over New Lodge and the Antrim Road. It’s the funeral of Marley in Ardoyne. 

7th April, Tuesday

Marley’s funeral has been put off again. The TV showed British rule.

larrymarley

Larry-Marley-funeral-by-Sean-Allen

I was down in Armagh. Father Murray gave me a traditional earful. Murder etc. Tommy is dead on. A tough nut. His people are welcoming. Armagh is weird, a strange place. Tense and edgy. A night of trouble in Belfast and Derry.

The Pogues and the Dubliners entered the British top ten at no. 8. The Irish Rover. Ronnie Drew never sang as fast before.

8th April, Wednesday

Liam and I attended Larry Marley’s funeral. We walked up and down the length of the Falls. The military and the police had a massive presence. The population responded in suitable numbers. A cup of tea in Conway Mill warmed me up. Liam did not want to be photographed because he lives in East Belfast.

He kept his hood up.

Lavery’s was jammed and when I met Billy at ten to eleven he wanted to go to the Crescent [Glasgow Rangers Supporters Club] on Sandy Row. It was even more crowded. It was dark and a band was playing early on, before a disco. I sat there, motionless, quite content, but not saying anything. I did not care about the girls. 

9th April, Thursday

Liam and I attended Larry Marley’s funeral yesterday. It was cold and spitting and the cortege took hours to come from Ardoyne to Milltown cemetery. The army and the police swamped the Falls. There were at least a hundred Land Rovers, not counting the soldiers and their vehicles. The people turned out, several thousand of them, to pay their respects and show the security forces what they felt, faced by handguns, rifles, sub-machine guns, plastic bullet guns etc. I counted at least fifteen lorries and buses burnt out between Divis and Andersonstown. One, carrying cement, left a wet paste on the ground on the Lower Falls. The fires in the night had bent and broken up the surface of the road. 

The key, or one of them, to international justice is national self-determination. It’s a cultural thing as much as anything. I have more sympathy and understanding when it comes to the Poles now. Or Czechoslovakia. Martin McGuinness told the RUC on Monday night last, We will defeat you in the end. The time will come to explain what is to be done with the Protestants. It is their country too but there must be justice and there can be no peace without it.

Billy had asked, “What’s going to happen to the Protestant people in a United Ireland?” Not a matter of if, but when. “I don’t know. I wish I could say.”

10th April, Friday

Derry. The council committee meeting contained sheer idiots. We had pints with Martin S. He whips timber from the forestry on the Letterkenny side to sell in the city. The pub fire was very hot.

11th April, Saturday

It is Saturday afternoon and I have no money today, which is unfortunate. I won’t starve with bread and soup in the kitchen. I’m just after cleaning up and washing myself. We were at a party last night and I was really stoned, after keeping the car windows closed, but I left the place because violent dickheads were getting out of hand. I would like to go down to Lavery’s tonight. I don’t even care for the pub but I want to see Patsy again. I met her for the first time on 21st March. On Thursday night, upstairs in Lavery’s, I saw her and told Ray and Liam about her. They were with me. I met them in there. Then she came over and the boys were impressed with that. She came back to this flat. It looked quite good. She thought about staying but she took a taxi home with the girl from Turf Lodge who was with her. She’s from the Falls. I wish I had money so I could meet her tonight and bring her back here on her own. Just the two of us, with a carry-out and some cigarettes. She knows I fancy her because I told her. The boys say it is obvious she is interested. I’m looking at the orange bulb in this room and Warren Zevon’s Werewolves of London has just come on. All that remains now is for us to get the physical opportunity. I have only met her three times. We are made for each other.

Just a fiver. That would be enough. I haven’t much time left here. Siouxsie covered The Passenger and I came to like her version. The brass seemed a bit much at first. The thing is to be so close to real success again while not having enough time or money to clinch her. For some reason she gives me shit about the Travellers and then she apologises. I think maybe it’s just a conversation piece. There are circumstances I cannot change and if these mean I won’t be sleeping with her ever, well…

She’s dark and when she smiles I really want her. God I do. She’s older than me, she looks older, but when I called her a woman she said she was a girl. It was exclusive eye-conversation. She seemed a bit uncertain because she was not alone. She was with people she knew. But they were not really interfering. It was heavy ordinance, said Liam. Everybody noticed us. It’s not a bad state to be in after speaking to each other only three times. There is plenty of time. I could do with a night’s passion again.

12th April, Sunday

I had to break down [open] M’s kitchen door for her, so I spent the afternoon there. Billy was asleep in the dark when I got back. Soup and toast. Two reserve constables were shot dead in Portrush last night. The weather was warm today.

13th April, Monday

Liam and I went to Andersonstown News where we met Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, cultural officer of Sinn Féin. 

15th April, Wednesday

Armagh, the trades council AGM. The committee will get off the ground. Liam was happy. I had done my last bit.

I said goodbye to Jimmy. It was half past eleven.

16th April, Thursday

John Gavin’s stories in his trailer got more and more gruesome. They call his place Fort Apache and Woodburn Barracks. Hannah [his wife] is an admirable woman.

We had a farewell party. Patsy left. She had lost interest, if she had any to begin with. I did not mind after a couple more joints and cans. I have theories but I don’t understand. Damien said it’s a different culture.

17th April, Friday

For my last day, Billy brought me over to The Raven [a loyalist club in East Belfast]. I was playing pool against a guy who was in jail for killing three Catholics. I was stoned. Billy gets a fool’s pardon there, for associating with Taigs. There were half a dozen of us, including Skipper [who was going down on drugs charges], and Greg, who is out of hospital. I got the three o’clock train in the sun.

The chap at the pool table had been released on appeal after a supergrass trial. I’d had a quiet word with Billy in the pool room. “We are going to lose this game.”

20th April, Easter Monday

I’m relaxing at home for this week. They could hardly wait for me to be back and safe.

29th April, Wednesday

My class had teamed up for a study visit with our counterparts from the Poly.

I missed the morning train to Belfast. It’s typical. I slept from Dublin to Dundalk on the three o’clock instead. I was bollocksed after running to Connolly. I felt like puking. I went to see Billy first, with cans. Liam called to the People’s College and everybody went to The Rotterdam. He was not impressed with my class.

30th April, Thursday

It rained as we walked across Albert Bridge. We went over to the Short Strand. I walked down to Lavery’s in the rain for a late pint.

1st May, Friday

The Protestants felt ill at ease in Connolly House. I felt the same in UDA headquarters, which was like a chamber of horrors. But then, when John McMichael was giving some of us a lift through the city, I was just chatting to him in the front seat, about Paisley. One for the books.

“Isn’t he like the Grand Old Duke of York?”

“Yeah, he’ll talk about fighting but he won’t do anything to organise it.” 

9th May, Saturday

The conflict has been deliberately cut off from people’s consciousness down here while they at the same time have wished it away like a horror story.

Postscript

22nd December, Tuesday

John McMichael was assassinated in Lisburn. It’s ironic that he was the first person I’ve ‘known’ to be later killed.

Tales you can take to the bank

Tales you can take to the bank

1711
To reduce the power of the privately-owned Bank of England, a plan was hatched by Robert Harley, the Earl of Oxford, for a group of merchants to assume parts of Britain’s national debt in return for an annual payment of three million pounds for a set period and a monopoly of the trade to the South Seas i.e. South America. The group then assumed the title the South Sea Company. Extravagant notions of the available riches in faraway fields were fostered and the company’s stock flourished until, in early 1720, it offered to take on the entire national debt. The British state’s creditors were encouraged to swap what they were owed for company shares and speculation then carried South Sea stock to ten times its nominal value. Then the chairman and directors sold out, the bubble burst and the stock collapsed. Thousands were ruined.

south-sea-bubble-william-hogarth

Companies of all kinds had been floated to surf on this tidal wave of interest in South Sea stock. They soon got the nickname of Bubbles, the most appropriate description that the popular imagination could invent. Some of them lasted for a week or a fortnight, while others were only around for a day. The most preposterous of all showed the complete madness of the people sucked in. It was started by an unknown adventurer who is definitely a candidate for the title of the unknown soldier of cynicism. His venture was entitled a “company for carrying on an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is”. The genius who mounted this bold and successful test of public gullibility merely stated in his prospectus that the required capital was half a million, in five thousand shares of one hundred pounds each, with a required deposit of two pounds per share. Each subscriber, paying his deposit, would be entitled to one hundred pounds per annum per share.

How this enormous profit was to be obtained he did not inform them at that time. Instead he promised that after a month full particulars would be announced and a call made for the remaining ninety-eight pounds of the subscription. The very next morning, at nine o’clock, this entrepreneur opened an office in Cornhill in London. Crowds flocked to his door and when he shut up shop at three o’clock, he found that the deposits had been paid for one thousand of his shares. He was thus, after five hours, the possessor of two thousand pounds. Content with his day’s work, he set off that same evening for the Continent. He was never heard of again.

1715
With the death of Louis XIV, the finances of France were in a bad state but the Duke of Orleans became Regent and this meant everything to a Scottish gambler called John Law who was a friend of the Duke and a man convinced that no country could prosper without a paper currency. In May 1716, a royal edict authorised Law to establish a bank. He made all his banknotes payable at sight and in the coin current at the time they were issued. This was a masterstroke and immediately made his notes more valuable than precious metals. The latter were constantly liable to depreciation by the tampering of the government.

john-law

Law publicly declared at the same time that a banker deserved to be put to death if he issued notes without having sufficient security to answer all demands. It was not long before the trade of the country felt the benefit and branches of his bank were established in several cities. In the meantime, Law started the project that has handed his name down to posterity. He proposed to establish a company that would have the exclusive privilege of trading to the Mississippi river and the province of Louisiana, where the country was supposed to abound in precious metals. This company was set up in August 1717.

It was then that the frenzy of speculation began. Law’s bank had brought about so much economic good that any promises for the future were swallowed but, when the bank became a public institution, the Regent ordered a printing of notes to the amount of a billion livres. Law helped inundate France with this paper money, which, based on no solid foundation, was sure to cause a crash, sooner or later.

Law otherwise devoted his attention to the Mississippi project, the shares of which were rapidly rising in spite of the opposition of Parliament. At least three hundred thousand applications were made for fifty thousand new shares. Every day the value of the old shares rose and new applications became so numerous that it was deemed advisable to create three hundred thousand new shares so the Regent could take advantage of the popular enthusiasm to pay off the national debt.

From the tremendous pressure of the crowds, accidents continually occurred in the narrow rue de Quincampoix where Law lived. A story goes that a hump-backed man who stood in the street made considerable money by lending his hump as a writing surface to the speculators. The great masses of customers and spectators drew all the low life of Paris to the spot and constant riots and disturbances occurred. At nightfall, it was often found necessary to send in a detachment of soldiers to clear the street.

Thus the system continued to flourish until the beginning of 1720. The warnings of the Parliament that this massive creation of paper money would bankrupt the country were disregarded but, despite every effort made to stop its exodus, the stores of precious metals in France continued to be smuggled to England and Holland. The little coin that was left in the country was hoarded until the scarcity became so great that trade could no longer be conducted. An edict then forbade any person to have more than five hundred livres (then the equivalent of twenty pounds sterling) of coin in his or her possession, under threat of a heavy fine, plus confiscation.

It was also forbidden to buy up jewellery, plate and precious stones. Informers were encouraged by the promise of getting half of any amount they might discover.
Lord Stair, the English ambassador, said that it was now impossible to doubt the sincerity of Law’s conversion to Catholicism, as he had established an inquisition after having given ample evidence of his faith in transubstantiation by turning gold into paper.

All payments were then ordered to be made in paper and even more notes were printed – to the tune of more than a billion and a half livres – but nothing now could make the people feel the slightest confidence in something that was not exchangeable for metal. Coin, which the Regent aimed to depreciate, only rose in value on every fresh attempt to reduce it.

The value of shares in the Mississippi stock had also tumbled and few people still believed the tales that had once been told of the immense wealth of that region. A last trick was therefore tried to restore public confidence in the Mississippi project.
A general conscription of all the homeless in Paris was made by order of the government. More than six thousand of the poorest of the population were press-ganged, as if in wartime. These unfortunates were provided with clothes and tools and told they would be shipped off to New Orleans to work in the gold mines. They were then paraded day after day through the streets with their picks and shovels before being sent off in small detachments to the ports to be shipped to America. Two thirds of them never reached their destination but melted into the countryside. There they sold their tools for whatever they could get and returned to their old way of life. In less than three weeks, half of them were back in Paris.

1907
Sometimes cynicism is wrapped up in a man simply knowing his strengths and limitations. Take JP Morgan in the 1907 American financial crisis, sitting alone in a room in his home, smoking cigars, while all the ordinary bankers were huddled in the next room, presumably with ties loosened and pencils perched over their ears. When a servant entered and ventured to ask him if he had a plan, he said, “No.” By way of reassurance, he added that he knew someone would come through the door with the right plan and then, he also knew, he would be the person to know it was the right one. Who knows that much today?

jp-morgan---panic-of-1893

1940
W. C. Fields made The Bank Dick. In this film, Fields plays a drunk named Egbert Sousé who trips a fleeing bank robber and becomes a security guard at the bank as a result. Upon being introduced to his daughter’s boyfriend, Og Oggilby, an official at the bank, Egbert remarks, “Og Oggilby… sounds like a bubble in a bathtub.”

Egbert talks Og into embezzling money from the institution. In order to divert a bank examiner from discovering the theft, Egbert takes him to his favourite bar and asks if “Michael Finn” has been in yet – a signal that the barman, one of the Three Stooges – is to spike the examiner’s drink. During Fields’ career, Hollywood standards demanded that good be rewarded and evil be punished but, in The Bank Dick, Fields’ character lies, cheats and steals and yet at the end is rewarded with wealth and fame.

the-bank-dick

1976
Willie Sutton’s autobiography denied that he’d ever explained why he robbed banks by saying “because that’s where the money is”. Though the apocryphal quotation became known as Sutton’s Law, he dismissed the story but, at the same time, admitted that, had anyone ever asked him, he probably would have said it.

Why did I rob banks? Because I enjoyed it. I loved it. I was more alive when I was inside a bank, robbing it, than at any other time in my life.

Maureen

Maureen

1989

Living in London but in Dublin for a weekend for a quiz show…

13th November, Monday

There were plenty of f*ck-ups in the programme preparations but in the end of the day I pulled off a clean sweep of the show. The unexpected stoppage I caused [by giving two answers to one question] must have helped. With flights having been cancelled due to fog, J. wanted to keep going so we hit Bad Bob’s and Leeson Street again. In a wine bar maybe I fell in love with a blonde called Maureen. She’s from Leitrim and she teaches English to Spaniards. She’s cynical and witty but I got the better of her on Eurovision trivia. She gave up on Paris. Why? “Parisians.”

20th November, Monday

I started as a chain boy on J’s site near Tower Hill. It’s all right. It’s better than labouring. I can cope with heights.

21st November, Tuesday

In a wine bar called Suesy Street, at the end of the night of the quiz, J. and I ran into Maureen, who was sitting on her own at the counter, with her friend in the process of getting off with a guy nearby. Soon he told her that there was something strange about her.

“Maybe it’s because I don’t simper.”

Description: fairly tall; hair clasped up none too carefully; a fine-looking woman without being stunning; a hearty, earthy laugh; slim but solid. In the short time I spent with her, maybe two hours, she impressed me more than any girl I’d met before. “Come on boys, walk me home.” She gave us a cup of tea. I asked if I could see her again, at Christmas.

22nd November, Wednesday

This could prove to be the best job I’ve been on. I can stand the cold, taking measurements. I don’t like using a sledgehammer but it helped me stay warm. Steel work seems more manly than being a donkey.

25th November, Saturday

Up on the steel girders of the seventh floor I sang Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne to myself to help me stay calm. As somebody wrote on site – erectors get you high. There is a rush of adrenaline all right. I went to Harlesden to collect a typewriter. It was too cold to get mugged.

26th November, Sunday

The sun these mornings is dazzling as you feel the cold steel under your arse.

29th November, Wednesday

The docklands: sandy brick in the morning sun and frost, yellowy-brown like a painting. It turned out I was glad to have gone to work. Breakfast sorted me out. Am I getting more used to the cold? The warm office is a sanctuary.

30th November, Thursday

I got paid. It feels calming to have money again. Some of the lads watched a man and woman bonking in an office across the street.

The psychology of steel: fear keeps you careful. I climbed up on the ninth floor this evening, partly to keep in practice and challenge myself to the test. To stay up too long brings on stiffness and that needs to be avoided. On the steel always keep two limbs firmly fixed. It’s pointless looking down. Your world must only be the few feet of space in your immediate vicinity. I tie my glasses around my head. I don’t need my concentration to be upset by the worry that they’ll fall off. After a spell up on the steel and the resultant buzz, the ground can feel unreal. I get flashes of the feelings of newness from when I first came to London. The strange red buses.

1st December, Friday

I was thinking a lot about Maureen. I was freezing. On a foggy evening Tower Bridge and its lights remind me of a Whistler painting.

3rd December, Sunday

“If you f*ck this one up I’ll never speak to you again,” J. said, re Maureen.

4th December, Monday

After work I called the number Maureen gave me and was told she’d been killed two weeks ago when she was knocked down in Killiney. A hit and run. The rest of the night I was waiting to wake up from this unbelievable dream.

5th December, Tuesday

Life is never dull, is it? I collected the rest of the script notes from Rouse. Two silent Japanese girls were making breakfast in the kitchen in Harlesden. They served tea without a word. When I got home I put on Vesti la Giubba and then I cried. It was only the beginning. There is no future with Maureen, because she’s dead. The conversation on the phone with the girl who told me was like something out of a film.

“Could I speak to Maureen please?”
Silence.
“Am, who is this?’
“My name is John Flynn.”
“Am, are you a friend of hers.”
“Yes.”
Pause.
“Where are you calling from?”
“London.”
Silence.
“Am, I’m sorry to have to tell you this, Maureen had an accident two weeks ago… she’s dead.”

There I have been, feeling death close at hand every day up on the steel and this unbelievable turn of events happens. I really don’t know how I feel. Kind of numb with the shock. Angel it doesn’t matter who took your life that night. You’re gone but your face will haunt me. It makes everything else look trivial doesn’t it?

I used to think these things don’t happen to me. After all, I was twice hit by cars and walked away both times. Now, it just seems that the way something unforeseen and bizarre often gets between me and women has taken a seriously unfunny turn.

I realize I’m missing the agony of her close friends and relatives. This circumstance is truly bizarre. A lot of the time I can only think in terms of black humour. You win some, you lose some. Passing strangers in the night. Life is never dull, is it? This kind of thing makes everything seem pointless, worthless. Maybe there’s a tarot card for it. An evil eye watching over those around me. Make a grave for the unknown lover. Just think of it, she was already dead when I wrote about her in earlier pages. You in truth were the unknown lover, the Other, maybe you were, to a man who doesn’t want a whole sex at his feet, who never wanted that, but if you can be taken away just like that…

When I heard over the phone I instinctively felt I knew it would happen, like some dream, like I once wrote: lucky to have achieved creative fulfilment and a preparation for death at such an early age, I just missed out on a partner and economic viability. It’s as if my written moans over the years have now come into their own, that I was right all along, as if I understood all along. It’s just beyond belief, it’s mind-boggling that all I should have had of her were those few hours. That she had only a few days to live. It must have been a tearful, very emotional occasion, her funeral. I was told she was never conscious again so she didn’t feel any pain. Here I sit upstairs, writing, drinking, listening to music and crying from time to time. Maybe it’s things like this that make a man of a man. A queer twist of fate. My eyes are stinging from the tears.

6th December, Wednesday

I haven’t cried like that since I was a child. J. described her as like Jim Morrison in a female body. When we met her she went to bed at six to be up by eight.

14th December, Thursday

I got a doctor’s cert around the corner from the flat on North Pole Road. He told me I had the flu. Then he started talking about the IRA (“Why don’t they hang them?”).

Have I yet described the way Maureen used to throw her head back between her shoulders when she was laughing? Or how at first she was stiffening her lips trying not to laugh (her raised eyebrows – ‘Are you speaking to moi?’). Weren’t the first impressions brilliant? By the end of the night I had her attention in the palm of my hand. J. can always vouch for that. He described it as a brilliant performance when we left her place, saying it had never been done to him before, being blown out of the water like that. She was the spark.

She was 23.